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12 YEARS A SLAVE

About the Production
Based on the unforgettable memoir that exposed the inner workings of slavery to the American public in the 19th Century, comes 12 YEARS A SLAVE, director Steve McQueen's mesmerizing and moving account of New York family man Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) unexpected kidnapping, his dizzying journey into Louisiana's slave plantations . . . and his unbreakable quest to get home to those he loves.

The true story of Northup's sudden loss of liberty is equally touched by transcendent moments of beauty, kindness and reminders of the connections we have to one another. From an accomplished musician and craftsman with a wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup finds himself in a staggering situation: drugged, stripped of his papers, shackled, and sold to an unflinching slave trader named Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He is shipped to Louisiana where his fate lies at the mercy of a series of plantation owners including William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), both of whom change Solomon in very different ways. While Solomon takes comfort in his friendships with Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), his mind and body are forced to the limits of human capacity at the whims of his captors. But at every turn, he refuses to succumb to hopelessness or the surreal oppression into which he has fallen, holding fast to his innate belief that he was, is and will one day again be a free man. When Solomon is finally introduced to a charitable carpenter called Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), his path to freedom is paved by a letter declaring his captivity and leading to his triumphant return to his family and subsequent publication of his revolutionary memoir.

McQueen, no stranger to intense yet breathtaking filmmaking in his first two films HUNGER and SHAME, began to envision 12 YEARS A SLAVE before he had even read the book. He knew that he wanted to explore American slavery in a way that hadn't yet been seen: from the point of view of a man who had known both the elation of a free life and the injustice of human bondage. McQueen was aware that historically some Southern slaves had been kidnapped from Northern states, but only later would he learn that a memoir of the precise experience he was imagining already existed.

"I wanted to tell a story about slavery, and it was just one of those subject matters where I thought to myself, well, how do I approach this? I liked the idea of it starting with someone who is a free man, a man who is much like everyone watching the movie in the cinema -- just a regular family guy," McQueen recalls, "who is then dragged into slavery through a kidnapping. I thought of him as someone who could take the audience through the ghastly conveyor belt of slavery's history."

At the time, McQueen mentioned his idea to his wife, Bianca, and it was she who found Solomon Northup's memoir, a book that had once rocked American society but was no longer well known or widely read. "My wife found the book and as soon as I opened it, I couldn't stop. I was stunned and amazed by this incredible true story. It read like Pinocchio or a Brother's Grimm tale, with a man pulled from life with his family into a dark, twisted tunnel, yet one that has a light at the end of it," he says.

McQueen found, as many had, that Northup was a shrewd observer of people, one of the few able at that time to bring to the world the vital news of what slavery actually looked and felt like from the inside. Shocking as his story was, Northup's tale also had a contemporary feel to it, an enlivening journey of both physical and moral courage. It was a profound act of bearing witness, and at the same time, asked a question that the greatest literature asks -- not just what happened but, what would you have done?

With 2013 marking the 160th anniversary of Northup's freedom, McQueen felt his story was especially urgent to tell right now. "This story has far more reach than anything else I've seen or read lately," he says. "I couldn't believe that I hadn't known about this book. How was it possible? Most Americans I mentioned the book to hadn't heard of it either. For me it is as important to American history as The Diary of Anne Frank is to European history -- a remarkable account of man's journey into astonishing inhumanity. Everyone thinks they know about this period in American history. But I think a lot of things in this film will surprise people the way they surprised me. I felt it would be an honor and a privilege to turn the book into a film and bring this story to audiences."

Known for juxtaposing intensely emotional and sometimes provocative scenes against frames with the lush, formal beauty of paintings, the story would give McQueen a chance to take his distinctive visual style farther than ever before -- and at the same time to hone his skills as a storyteller. And, ultimately, it was the story of 12 YEARS A SLAVE that inspired McQueen -- a story at once shattering yet told with poignant dignity and inspirational determination. "At its core, this is a story about family and the hope of coming home to your loved ones," he summarizes.

"It's such an extraordinary story, and it's so moving. It instantly gave us the perspective we wanted, a period of time long enough to really understand or investigate what slavery was, what it meant on a day in and day out basis and what it meant on so many levels," says producer Dede Gardner.

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